TV Talking song: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Dylan seemed to be quite fascinated with the talking blues in the early years of his career – pretty much against the trend of the age.   “Talking world war III blues”, “I shall be free number 10”, “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues” …  And then he came back to the form some years later with “TV Talking Song” on Under the Red Sky.

In 2013 the New Yorker ran a piece on the song which noted with much interest that “Dylan has been a towering figure of the television age, yet over the past half-century, he’s not had much to say about TV—at least not in the lyrics of his songs.”

Dylan has commented negatively about the influence of TV in interviews, noting that people used to go out and have a life, now they just watch TV instead.   But the New Yorker struggled to find much in the way of TV mentions elsewhere in his songs, and the article has to settle for (among a few others)

You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name

which is hardly insightful, at least not insightful vis a vis TV.

But eventually Dylan did get back the theme with TV Talking Song.   The song seems to have gone through a lot of re-writing during and around the recording, and it seems some of the lines lost might have been worth keeping.

Heylin cites one such re-written verse which started out as

Tear the screen apart he said, and climb up on the knobs; You can have another life with all the time you’ve lost; Raises little puppets, spins your brain about; Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did, and bow the damn thing out.

What Dylan does is what so many others have done: he starts by condeming not the technology but the use of the technology, but then in recognising just how invidious the whole thing has become, the song becomes a condemnation of the technology in total.

As the New Yorker says, “Mostly, though, it is another reminder of how stultifying and mentally exhausting contemporary television often is, no matter what the people on the screen are saying.”

And yet, and yet… I can’t speak for TV in other countries for although I’ve watched TV as I have travelled the world I haven’t really seen it in depth as I have in the UK.  But in the UK I’m of late encouraged by what some of the minority channels are showing these days.

We all need some pure light entertainment some of the time, as well as some of the deeper darker series coming out of Scandinavia and France.  But thinking of the latter and watching Braquo, for example, I found what I imagine life would have been like if Jean Luc Goddard had made TV series.  This is TV with phenomenal artistic merit.

But of course Dylan is talking about the mindless pap made for virtually nothing and which has no artistic merit at all and which covers so many cable and satellite stations.

So the man is in Speakers’ Corner.  And may I add if you are not English, yes it is a real place in Hyde Park, close by where the Tyburn Gallows stood until the end of the 18th century, and yes people get up and speak there on any lawful subject without disturbing the peace.  (Actually one can do this anywhere in the UK, as you can in most liberal democracies; it is just that this is the famous place where people gather).

He talks about the evil of TV…

There was someone on a platform talking to the folks
About the T.V. god and all the pain that it invokes

The situation is getting worse and worse and then we end with a spot of irony

The crowd began to riot and they grabbed hold of the man
There was pushing, there was shoving and everybody ran
The T.V. crew was there to film it, they jumped right over me
Later on that evening, I watched it on T.V.

What I have always wondered is why the crowd rioted.  Did they really not like being told that TV is rubbish?  Maybe, but it all seems a bit of a trite reason for having a riot.  Just an artistic device I guess.

But still I can easily imagine the TV crews filming it and showing it on the evening news.   Riots are newsworthy.

It’s not a great song, but it is enjoyable, and more and more could be done with it, if Dylan ever wanted to go back, which I am sure he doesn’t.  It doesn’t have the power and fun of Subterranean Homesick Blues – which is just over the border into a song rather than a talking blues – but it could have done with a bit more work.

Wouldn’t it have been great to know more about the speaker and his world, in the sense that we learn about the Drifter who escapes?  But of course in the Drifter’s Escape our concern is the man, here it is the idea.

TV films man protesting TV.  Somehow that just doesn’t seem surprising.

Final point: these little articles have the title “the meaning of the music and the lyrics”.  So what of the music?  It is all on one chord, and in a very real sense that is apposite.  The TV programmes go round and round and round, nothing changes, it is all dross… so what better music than music which stays constantly on one chord.

Details of all the songs reviewed on this site.



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3 Responses to TV Talking song: the meaning of the music and the lyrics

  1. Anthony says:

    A puerile song from a then-50-year-old Dylan.
    He tried to recreate something and failed.
    It wasn’t terrible.

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Anthony, ok that is your opinion, but it would be helpful if you gave some justification or analysis to back up your dismissal of the piece.

  3. Rob Geurtsen says:

    Do you mean the tv has become or the song has become ‘invidious’? Or are you talking about tv is the ‘whole thing’ (a concept or system) has become ‘insidious’?

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